The status of reliaion in the U.S.S.R.

Recently the editor and his wife made a nineteen-day official visit to the U. S. S. R. Here they report on their visits with various church leaders and highlight the Soviet Constitution s perspective on religion.

J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

Our visit to the Soviet Union, June 28-July 16 of this year, impressed us with the fact that the goals of Marxism have numerous elements in common with Christianity. An English-language brochure that we found in the intourist section of one of the four Moscow airports informs readers of Soviet projects and forecasts for the twenty-first century. Many of the introductory concepts quoted from three Soviet acade micians—Vladimir Obruchev, Nikolai Semyonov, and Igor Petryanov—parallel God's promises of a new earth (Revelation 21, 22). These gentlemen foresee the eradication of "contagious diseases," the conquering of "aging and fatigue," and the restoration to life of "victims of accidental death." They look forward to placing "all forces of nature at the service of man," hoping "to control weather, to steer the winds and the clouds, to regulate rains and sunshine, snow and heat." Obruchev concluded his remarks by stating, "It all sounds incredibly difficult, but it will have to be done." In a country comprising one sixth of the world's land area and spanning eleven time zones, this certainly presents an incredibly difficult challenge! Nevertheless we admire their vision.

The major difference, and it is a gargantuan one, between these forecasts and the scriptural predictions centers on the length of life they offer. These scientists aim "to prolong human life to 150-200 years," while the Bible's final forecasts declare that the time is coming when "there shall be no more death" (Rev. 21:4).

We noted parallels also in the area of morality, standards, and values. Repeatedly we scanned the three TV channels in the hotels in which we stayed. The total spectrum of programming in the Soviet Union resembles America's public broadcasting system. Viewers are fed a consistent diet of concerts, travelogues, news, documentaries, science, and sports. Both the children's programs and drama seemed quite mild and innocuous compared with American productions.

The "tameness" of so-called "rock-and-roll music" also reflects the state's attempt to protect and augment "the moral and aesthetic education of the Soviet people, for raising their cultural level" (Article 27 of the U.S.S.R. Constitution). Pornographic literature and films may be available from under ground sources to those who pay a price, but they certainly are not readily accessible to the U.S.S.R.'s 270 million citizens.

The U.S.S.R.'s standards relative to literature, music, art, and TV and radio programming resemble what most Christian churches in the West attempt to teach their adherents to select by choice. We who accept Paul's counsel to fill our minds with those things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovable, gracious, excellent, and admirable (Phil. 4:8, N.E.B.) in order to develop and maintain Christian character cannot help believing that the population of our nation would be better off without having their minds assaulted by plots reeking with lurid sex, violence, profanity, and horror.

Baptists, Adventists, Orthodox, and Catholics

Our visit to the U.S.S.R. had two purposes: to contact the ministers and members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and to evaluate as far as possible the religious freedom and activities of all Christian churches.

The two largest religious groups in the U.S.S.R. are the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam. Other sizable groups are the Buddhists, the Armenian Church, the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists (formed in 1944 through the merger of Baptists and Evangelicals and expanded by the addition in 1945 of some of the Pentecostal communities and later by Mennonite communities), the Roman Catholic Church, Lutherans, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, and a few other religious associations.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has approximately 32,000 members and 520 churches in the Soviet Union. About 10 percent of these churches are owned jointly by the Baptists and Adventists. (The churches in Moscow and Lvov exemplify both the advantages of this cooperation and the cordial relations that result from it. Recently the government granted Adventists permission to print 10,000 Bibles, some of which were shared with the Baptists.) According to some reports, there are approximately 500,000 Baptists in the U.S.S.R. Undoubtedly they form the largest Protestant group. Roman Bilas, a Pentecostal minister in Lvov, reported to us that there are about 100,000 Pentecostals in the U.S.S.R.

In the same city we spent some time with Kiemicki Ladislaw, the leading priest of the local Roman Catholic cathedral (he has only one priest to assist him). While we, unfortunately, were not able to attend his Sunday services, we were told that from 6,000 to 7,000 individuals regularly worship there, many of them young people. The Roman Catholics have two seminaries in the country for the training of their clergy.

Our longest visit was with Archbishop Nikodim, of the Russian Orthodox Church. He serves as archbishop of one of the 14 dioceses in the Ukraine (the U.S.S.R. has a total of 74). The Orthodox Church operates three seminaries and two academies for the training of their clergy. The Ukraine has 1,006 churches and cathedrals and a very large membership. Some estimate the membership of the Russian Orthodox Church in the U.S.S.R. to be around 50 million.

Archbishop Nikodim served close to 20 years in Inter-America, Jerusalem, and Argentina before returning to his home land at his own request. His final words to us were greetings to all Americans. He asked for our prayers and love and expressed a desire for greater under standing between the people of our nations. We were touched by his sharing with us his special birthday cake on his "happy angels' day," which coincided with our visit.

Background of government attitude

In the 1984 printing of the English edition of their Constitution as adopted at the Seventh (Special) Session of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., Ninth Convocation, on October 7, 1977, we find the foundations for the government's attitude toward religion. Chapters 6 and 7, of Section II, which is titled "The State and the Individual," deal with citizenship—"the basic rights, freedoms, and duties of citizens." This portion of the Constitution gives insights to the careful reader as to the extent of religious freedom in the Soviet Union. One must understand that atheism is one of the major premises on which this Communistic state is built. Knowing this, we find that it is not difficult to comprehend the government's consistent attitudes toward all religions.

A statement from an official publication written by Vladimir Kuroyedov, head of the government's Council for Religious Affairs, describes earlier inequities and casts a new light on the current system's approach to religious liberty: "In Russia before 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church was the officially established faith. The code of laws of the Russian Empire included special statutes and regulations establishing the structure and restricting the activities of religious associations. Thus, government interference in the internal affairs of the church was official. Inequality of the different religions in the eyes of the law was also officially acknowledged. The Orthodox Church was proclaimed the pre-eminent and dominant state church with the Tsar himself as its 'sovereign guardian and protector.' Anyone who denied the verity of Orthodoxy was, in the light of imperial law, against the Tsar and his sovereignty. . . . The Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed more extensive privileges than other religions. It had the exclusive right to propagate its doctrine and alone had the right of autonomy, being governed by the Holy Governing Synod headed by the chief procurator appointed by the Tsar. The religious affairs of other faiths were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, all other churches being only 'tolerated' in Russia.

"Only persons belonging to the Orthodox Church could hold government posts. . . . Followers of certain religions were persecuted for their beliefs. People who refused to convert to the Orthodox Church or who wished to abandon it were often dismissed from work."—Church and Religion in the U.S.S.R., pp. 9, 10. A brief study of history will confirm the above statements. We are acquainted with a number of individuals who came to the U.S.A. from Russia prior to the revolution because of religious persecution. Regardless of how we may evaluate the Soviet Constitution relative to religious freedom, we must admit that all religions, Christian and non-Christian, are on an equal footing before the law. Elderly members of our own communion with whom we spoke gave unanimous testimony that for Seventh-day Adventists, the religious freedom climate today far surpasses that which existed prior to the revolution.

U.S.S.R. Constitution and religious rights

Article 34 of the Constitution states that "citizens of the U.S.S.R. are equal before the law, without distinction of origin, social or property status, race or nationality, sex, education, language, attitude to religion, type and nature of occupation, domicile, or other status." Carefully consider the words "attitude to religion." The final sentence in this section is significant: "The equal rights of citizens of the U.S.S.R. are guaranteed in all fields of economic, political, social, and cultural life."

Chapter 7 outlines the rights, freedoms, and duties of the citizen. These include the right to work, to rest and leisure, to have health protection, old age maintenance, housing, education, enjoyment of cultural benefits, et cetera. These rights are most laudable. Of major concern to us as Christian leaders is Article 52. We shall quote it in its entirety and we urge our readers to study it carefully.

"Citizens of the U.S.S.R. are guaranteed freedom of conscience, that is, the right to profess or not to profess any religion, and to conduct religious worship or atheistic propaganda. Incitement of hostility or hatred on religious grounds is prohibited.

"In the U.S.S.R., the church is separated from the state, and the school from the church."

As far as we were able to discern in our visits to our churches in Moscow, Tula, Frunze in central Asia, Sochi on the Black Sea, and Lvov and Kiev in the Ukraine, our members could freely gather on the church property to worship and fellowship. The last statement of Article 52 dealing with the separation of the school from the church places all education in the hands of state-con trolled schools. Adventists operate one of the largest parochial school systems in the world, but Article 52 forbids any type of religiously controlled educational systems within the U.S.S.R.

Although Article 52 declares that "the church is separated from the state," the Soviet Union has a National Council for Religious Affairs. This council functions as a special governmental body under the Council of Ministers. According to Article 130, this Council of Ministers is "responsible and account able to the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R."—the highest authority of the nation. (The Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. is the legislative branch, while the Counsel of Ministers is the executive branch of the government.)

Fourteen of the fifteen republics have a representative of religious affairs who is responsible to the National Council for Religious Affairs in Moscow. The Ukraine, which has possibly the greatest concentration of Christians, has its own separate Council for Religious Affairs. That council wields the same power and authority as the National Council but on a regional level, and is, of course, accountable to the National Council for Religious Affairs.

Early development of Adventlst work

The Seventh-day Adventist Church arose in Russia as a lay missionary movement. Many ethnically German citizens of Russia immigrated to America in the 1870s. Some of those who became Seventh-day Adventists after immigrating sent books, tracts, and magazines to their relatives and acquaintances back in the "homeland."

Interest in a study of the Scriptures was evident not only among the foreign settlers but also among the native Russians. Because disaffection from the Orthodox Church was treated as a state crime and punished by banishment, early efforts at evangelism were confined to the German settlers—who were exempt from the leaden hand of the state church and had better opportunity to study the Word without fear of their security. The first converts were made about 1882 in several places in southern Russia. Early in 1886 the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists sent L. R. Conradi from the United States to Basel, Switzerland. Later that year he met Gerhard Perk at Odessa, and the two of them contacted people in the Crimea and elsewhere in Russia who had shown an interest in the gospel. On one occasion after they had conducted a baptism, both Perk and Conradi were arrested and jailed for forty days. We owe much to these early pioneers, who sacrificed everything in order to establish churches in various parts of the country.

During the first decade of Soviet government in Russia, Protestants enjoyed a degree of religious freedom unknown in czarist times, and the Adventist membership more than doubled. Our church had its internal problems, however, and prior to the second world war we practically lost our organization. In 1944 and 1945 our churches opened again. But with no trained ministers there was a very limited under standing of our doctrine—especially that related to righteousness by faith alone in Jesus Christ.

Gradually various leaders arose in different parts of the Soviet Union, and tragically they differed among them selves as to both theology and methodology. In the latter area, they disagreed as to whether they should attempt to get government recognition of our church or to work in an underground fashion.

In 1958 Mikhail Kulakov was elected to lead our churches in the central Asia region where he had served for a number of years. Then, in view of its divided condition, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially disbanded by the Soviet government.

In 1970 Mikhail Kulakov visited relatives in the United States and attended the Annual Council of our church in Washington, D.C. After returning to his homeland he went to various Adventist leaders in the U.S.S.R., urging the uniting of our churches and cooperation with the government authorities. His efforts had the support of the officers of our General Conference in Washington, who made it clear that our church should work openly and not underground as long as we were able to maintain our church services and to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. His endeavors sparked the reorganization of our church in Russia, and the ensuing years have seen its gradual reunification.

In 1976 Pastor Alf Lohne visited the Soviet Union, the first official General Conference representative to do so in recent times. His return the next year saw the beginning of an official organization. All the pastors were invited to meet to elect leaders for our Russian work. As the disagreement over methodology still existed, a number did not attend.

In 1981 Pastor N. C. Wilson, our General Conference president, visited the Soviet Union and delivered a momentous speech to our members in Moscow. He stated that the world church body was taking a stand on the side of those who were working in harmony with government laws and seeking registration from the government in order to worship openly. Since that time there has been a gradual improvement in our work in Russia. We are looking forward to greater things as more and more churches are recognized by the government.

We hope soon to see the day when we will be able to establish a division-level organization for the U.S.S.R. (A division is the largest geographical unit of organization in our church. Currently we have ten divisions.) When we met with the chief international communication officer of the Soviet government's Council of Religious Affairs, he substantiated this hope by assuring us that he saw no problem at all as far as his government was concerned in the setting up of a division for our church in that nation.

Greatest emotional experience

In our visit to the Soviet Union we found a deep interest in worship and the preaching of the Word. Lengthy services did not concern these dear people in the least. Pastor Walt Blehm, president of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, accompanied us on this tour. In most places both of us preached in services beginning at 8:00 P.M. Sometimes the meetings lasted until 10:30 P.M. or later. We wondered whether people would come back the next night, but the churches were always packed.

When we arrived in Kiev the aisles were jammed with standing people. Some of them took turns in standing and sitting, and for three hours these precious souls like sponges drank up every word of the Word. In this particular church the ventilation left something to be desired, and the temperature rose to well over 100 degrees, but this in no way dimmed the enthusiasm of the worshipers.

The music, instrumental and vocal, choirs and soloists, was outstanding. And we found, as is true all over the world, that the right tone of leadership attracts young as well as older worshipers.

In our thirty years of traveling the surface of our globe and visiting nearly every nation and country on earth, we honestly can say we have never had such an emotional experience as this one. At several airports delegations of young people dressed in the national costumes of their particular area met us with beautiful roses and gladioli. In Lvov, our first stop in the Ukraine, we were offered the traditional beautifully decorated round loaf of bread with a small dish of salt in its center as a symbol of the wealth and love of their area being extended to us. The warmth and tenderness exhibited to us by our fellow believers bordered on the overwhelming. All of us shed many a tear.

We solicit the prayers of our readers in behalf of all Christian organizations in the Soviet territory. As we look ahead to the twenty-first century we believe that progress will be made not only in the fields of science, economics, and sociology but also in the area of Christian church growth.—J.R.S. and M.C.S.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
J.R. Spangler is the editor of Ministry.

September 1984

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Coping with depression

Pastors are perhaps more susceptible to depression than almost any other professionals. Pastoral work can be very emotionally draining. How can a pastor learn to profit from rather than succumb to the depression that knocks at his door?

The parson who talked sense

When you are preaching well, your listeners understand and remember the ideas you are attempting to convey. By using words familiar to your congregation and portraying word pictures, you communicate most successfully.

The nonproductive pastor

Upon beginning our ministry we feel that we can conquer the world, and we set out in a whirlwind of activity to prove it. Later in our ministry we feel that the world has conquered us, and our level of productivity begins to prove it. How can we avoid becoming just another mortality statistic among clergy failures? If we are an administrator, how can we infuse new life into a pastor who has become paralyzed with inactivity? The counsel offered here is invaluable.

The dark-horse candidate

Figures larger than life. Royal chronicles from an Oriental court. Illicit sex. Murder. Attempted cover-up in high places. Intrigue concerning succession to the throne. A fearless defender of morality. All these elements suggest a highly interesting story. And, as you might expect, this one ultimately points to a sovereign God.

Effective pastoral counseling

Pastors have a unique opportunity and advantage when it comes to counseling. The shared worship community opens avenues for understanding that no other counselor can make use of. We should understand the specialness of our profession and how to capitalize on our unique advantage.

Illustrations in preaching

In many ways the success of preaching depends upon the success of the illustration. An idea without an accompanying illustration is like an airplane without wings; the idea is not going to fly. The most successful preachers soon discover that illustrations have a way of personalizing the message, of attaching an address to it. As preachers, when we fail to use illustrations, it's the same as writing a lengthy letter but failing to address the envelope before mailing it.

Shepherdess International-What is it?

The minister's wife has been one of the most neglected, yet most valuable resources of the church. To meet her unique needs, a new organization has been set up on an international scale.

The Money of the Jewish Temple

Coins played an important part in Temple worship from Nehemiah's time on. The faces and inscriptions found on Temple money reveal some interesting details of Jewish history and theology.

Recommended Reading

Monthly book reviews

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)